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Castle Hill is Budapest's most spectacular - and most visited - district. In one small area you have most of the city's big-hitter attractions, including the Royal Palace with its museums and library, the Matthias Church, the Fisherman's Bastion and several spectacular statues. The views over the Danube to Pest are incomparable and worth the trip alone.
Castle Hill has been settled since the 13th century, and you can still feel the scale of the medieval in its steep twisting streets and little square. It's watched over by a magnificent golden turul - the mythical eagle that is featured in Hungarian mythology. As you come up by funicular, the turul is practically the first thing you see.
The Royal Palace also has its fair share of fantastical statues, including a fountain featuring the young King Matthias posing as a hunter. The palace contains the Budapest History Museum and the National Art Gallery as well as the National Library.
The Matthias Church, a blend of styles, mainly dates from the 19th century and is notable for its patterned roofs and elaborate spires. The Fisherman's Bastion, nearby, was built in 1905, and is a fantasy of Neo-Gothic turrets and colonnades. From here you can get what may be the best Castle Hill views of all.
Váci utca (utca simply means 'street') is Budapest's most upmarket shopping precinct. Once upon a time it was all about the antique shops and was famous for its bookstores; nowadays it's more about high-end designer fashion and European chain stores, and you'll struggle to find a bargain here.
For the traveler - at least those that don't want to join their fellow visitors in the hunt for just one more Zara dress or an overpriced meal in one of the many tourist-trap restaurants - the main pleasure of strolling Váci utca is the street's polished good looks and architecture. Window-shop and people-watch your way down the (pedestrian) street, which opens into squares, and take in ceramic reliefs, stained glass and Art Nouveau interiors.
Városliget is the largest of Budapest’s public parks, a vast expanse of 302 acres (1.2 km²) of public space with its main entrance at the monumental UNESCO-listed Heroes’ Square (Hosok Tér). It was originally an area of rural swamp but was mentioned as the royal hunting grounds as far back as the 13th century.
By 1751 the swamp had been drained and more trees planted in an English-style landscaping that became Hungary’s first public park. One hundred years later, the park became the focus of the Millennium celebrations, with museums, lakes, zoos and follies being built for 1896. Around the same time elegant Andrássy Avenue was constructed, which leads from the city center Erzsébet Square to Heroes’ Square.
Today the park is an idyllic spot for a summer picnic under the shade of gigantic sycamore trees or around the lake. Városliget is a one-stop destination for kids: Budapest Zoo, a permanent circus, the transport museum and Budapest Amusement Park provide a day’s worth of entertainment. The agricultural museum in Vajdahunyad Castle and a brace of art museums are also found within the park’s boundaries as well as the gorgeous neo-Baroque Széchenyi thermal baths. There’s a flea market here on Sunday morning and visitors don’t even have to leave the park to eat; there’s a choice of decent restaurants, including Budapest’s famous (and expensive) gourmet choice, Gundel.
Gellért Hill is one of Budapest's most romantic nights out. Just grab a bottle of the city's famous red wine, a couple of glasses, and your beloved. It might be a bit of a trek up there, but the view of twinkling lights will amply reward you.
The views you'll see over the Danube are best seen from the Citadel, built by the Austrians after their victory over the Hungarians in the 19th century. In fact, the monuments on Gellért Hill all have a somewhat painful history.
The girl posing with the palm of victory symbolizes the Russian liberation of the city after WWII, but as the liberation turned into an occupation, its presence has been disputed.
And Gellért himself? A martyred saint whose efforts at conversion ended with him being killed by angry pagans in a nail-filled barrel rolled down the hill (ouch!). He's commemorated by an immense statue.
Budapest’s Chain Bridge was the city’s first – and is still its most famous – crossing of the Danube, connecting Baroque Buda on the western river bank with the wide boulevards of Pest on the east. Opened in 1849, the bridge is 375 meters long and 16 meters wide; it is made of made of stone slabs and suspended in place by two massive linked iron chains. Originally a toll bridge, it was designed by English engineer Alan Clark, who also had a hand in Hammersmith Bridge across the River Thames in London. The stone lions guarding both ends of the Chain Bridge were carved by János Marschalkó and added in 1852.
From the Buda side of the Chain Bridge a road tunnel leads northwards underneath Castle Hill; as the bridge united the east and west sides of the city it was indirectly responsible for Budapest’s rapid flowering as a major metropolis in the late 19th century. Continuing to play a large part in the city’s history, the bridge was blown up by the Nazis in World War II to halt the progress of Russian troops across the Danube. It was one of the first structures in Budapest to be rebuilt after the war and today it remains a potent symbol of the city and Hungary’s independence; the bridge was the scene of fierce demonstrations during the 1989 protests against Communist occupation. Walking across it at night gives views of Buda Castle and Parliament House gloriously floodlit across the river.
The Central Market Hall is the largest indoor market in Budapest, Hungary. The ornate building is more than 100 years old and has three stories filled with stalls. The roof is still original and is covered in colorful Zsolnay tiles. There are four other markets in Budapest that were built in the same style with similar roofs, and all five opened on February 15, 1897.
The market hall is frequently visited by tourists, though many locals shop here on a regular basis as well. There are stalls selling fruits and vegetables, Hungarian meats, fish, local cheeses, Hungarian herbs and spices, Hungarian wines and spirits, clothing, purses, accessories, and souvenirs. There are also a few restaurants where you can try local dishes such as lángos, which is yeast-based dough deep fried in oil and topped with different things like sour cream, cheese, and garlic. The Central Market Hall often holds special events featuring the cuisine of foreign countries. These events are generally held on Fridays and Saturdays.
Margit-sziget (Margaret Island) is a magical little piece of heaven poised between Buda and Pest. Being there always gives you the sense of taking some time off from the real world. It's small - only 2.5 km (1.4 mi) long - but you'd be surprised how much the island manages to pack in and still feel like an oasis.
Margaret Island was once three islands; they were put together to stem the flow of the Danube in the 19th century. In the middle ages, Margaret Island was called the Island of Rabbits. It was named Margaret after a saint who lived in one of the many nunneries.
The Ottoman rulers kicked out the monks and nuns and took over the island for their harems. There's still plenty of lolling about and pleasure seeking to be done on the island today. It has a pool and lido, a thermal spa, concerts and a Japanese garden to help you relax.
Sitting high on Castle Hill on the Buda side of the Danube River, Fisherman’s Bastion was built in 1905 as part of the ongoing celebrations of the thousand-years existence of the Hungarian state. It encompasses part of the original fortified castle walls and its terraces boast the best view points over the river and across to Pest. The bastion is a step away from several of Budapest’s big-hitting attractions, including the Royal Palace with its museums and library, Matthias Church and the Hungarian National Gallery.
Festooned with Neo-Romanesque lookout towers, equestrian statues, turrets and colonnades, the T-shaped bastion has two levels and wraps itself around Matthias Church. Architect Frigyes Schulek revamped the church and designed the bastion at the same time. The wide steps leading up to the bastion are scattered with neo-Gothic statuary and provide an impressive introduction to Castle Hill. Landmarks that can be seen from the terraces include Margaret Island, the Parliament building, the Chain Bridge and St Stephen’s Basilica. A terraced restaurant is open over summer.
The elegant boulevard of Andrássy Avenue was completed in 1885 as part of the expansion of Budapest under Emperor Franz Joseph I to celebrate the thousand-year anniversary of the state of Hungary. It connects the Pest-side city center at Erzsébet Square to the City Park (Városliget) and as a masterpiece of urban planning was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002, along with Heroes’ Square.
Elegant townhouses lined the avenue and it became the preserve of wealthy bankers and the aristocracy. In order to conserve Andrássy’s architectural harmony, the city fathers decided to build a train line underneath the avenue. And so the Millennium Underground Railway opened, the first in continental Europe; it was first used to transport people from the city center to Városliget, which was the focus of the millennium celebrations in 1896.
Today the Art Nouveau architecture competes for attention with sleek cafés and bars and upscale shopping. In its 1.5-mile (2.5-km) march through Pest, Andrássy is punctuated by the vast octagonal square of Oktagon and is home to the Hungarian State Opera House, the House of Terror Museum in the old headquarter of the secret police, and Budapest’s gloriously grand and much-loved Gerbeaud Café.